Burning Injustice

Shaky evidence sent Sonia Cacy to prison for burning her beloved uncle to death. Now she's destitute and fighting the state to clear her name.

Hurst couldn't let it go. He sent the test results to Dr. Richard Henderson, an expert in chemical analysis who often lectured at the FBI National Academy. He too agreed that they should be read as an unequivocal "none detected" for gasoline. He sent the autopsy report to the director of the forensic pathology division at the University of Miami School of Medicine, and to the deputy medical examiner for Cook County, Illinois, as well as a few others. Each concluded independently that Richardson had died of a heart attack, not thermal burns.

Cacy's case began gaining attention in the national media. The Wall Street Journal and Dateline NBC performed extensive investigations of her case at Hurst's urging, going as far as hiring their own experts to review the evidence. They reached the same conclusions. In 1998, Hurst and Rabbanian presented her case to the Board of Pardons and Paroles. It was the longest of long shots. The board never granted parole to a convicted murderer serving a life sentence, who refused to express remorse for her crime, or to even admit it at all. But the board was so moved by the evidence that it released Cacy six years in to a 99-year sentence.

She walked out of prison November 23, 1998, at the age of 51, still guilty in the eyes of the state but free. The prison parking lot was filled with well-wishers like Gerald Hurst and Rabbanian, and with TV news crews, newspaper reporters, all there for Cacy, a woman raised in the remote oil fields, but whose name was now synonymous with bad science and miscarried justice. "I want my name cleared," she told the San Antonio Express-News that day. "I want to be found innocent."

Dallas attorney Gary Udashen has represented Cacy for years.
Can Turkyilmaz
Dallas attorney Gary Udashen has represented Cacy for years.
Sonia Cacy, nervous but hopeful, waits for a bus to take her to her son's home in Port Aransas.
Brantley Hargrove
Sonia Cacy, nervous but hopeful, waits for a bus to take her to her son's home in Port Aransas.


A murder conviction was a stain that wouldn't wash, Cacy learned on the outside. Finding decent housing was hard when nearly every rental application includes a background check. Finding a decent job was impossible when every job application asked about felonies. Her path had been eased some by a benefactor, a Dallas businessman who asked to remain anonymous and who had supplied her with work and housing as much as he could.

In 2005, the on-again-off-again love of her life, Billy Cacy, died, and she fell into a dark place. She tried to kill herself with a bottle of Crown Royal, but was discovered on the floor of her apartment and treated for alcohol poisoning in the hospital. Life had taken on a desolate pattern, in which the things she loved were always lost. She struggled with drinking again.

All the while, others worked on her behalf. The Innocence Project of Texas had taken on her case and was pushing for her exoneration. A whistle-blower from the Bexar County toxicology lab had filed suit, alleging wrongful termination and settling for $350,000. Dr. Larry Ytuarte confirmed what Hurst had always suspected — that the lab had manufactured paperwork to patch a chain of evidence broken by mishandling.

In 2005, a new state law directed the formation of the Texas Forensic Science Commission to evaluate claims alleging convictions based on junk science, negligence or misconduct. Politics infected the process.

Cameron Todd Willingham, a Corsicana man, was executed in 2004 for burning his house down with his children inside. Hurst investigated his case and found it to be as bogus as Cacy's. A number of experts agreed. But Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott saw to it that the commission did not review the case, authoring a legal opinion that said it could not review scientific testimony given before the law's passage. That meant they couldn't review Cacy's case either.

Another door opened in fall 2011. The State Fire Marshal's Office, at the urging of the commission, announced that it would review arson cases its investigators had participated in. When Chris Connealy was hired to the post, he empaneled an expert committee of top forensic scientists and attorneys to evaluate the evidence that had sealed arson convictions. On August 1, 2013, the state fire marshal released its review of the Cacy case. The arson determination, the fire marshal's expert panel concluded, was "not supportable under the present day scientific standards of care for conducting a fire investigation." There was "no scientific evidence to support the opinion that William R. Richardson was alive when the fire broke out."

Dr. Charles Bux, who performed the autopsy in Bexar County and is now a coroner in Colorado, believes Richardson was "alive, plain and simple."

"I based it on the arson finding and ruled it a homicide. Until someone has good evidence that's not true, I see no reason to change my opinion."

The district attorney in Fort Stockton, Rod Ponton, has requested that the state attorney general render an opinion on the fire marshal's work. He argues that, like the Texas Forensic Science Commission, the fire marshal has no right to review cases that predate the law. The law, as written, applies only to the commission, state Fire Marshal Connealy counters.

The district attorney who twice prosecuted Cacy, now in private practice in Fort Stockton, remains convinced of her guilt. "I think the decision of the jury finding her guilty was based on some solid evidence..." Valadez said. "They had to consider the facts to decide an appropriate punishment. The second jury almost doubled her sentence."

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My Voice Nation Help

For all the scientific evidence gathering and critical analysis one would expect in an arson investigation, the outcomes in this case and others were based on assumptions and a refusal to question the status quo. What happened to Cameron Willingham is both a tragedy and an outrage. Thank God the tide is changing with regard to fire investigation. I hope for the innocent to be vindicated and freed before it's too late.

ScottsMerkin topcommenter

loafer dude knocks one out of the park.  Great read